Ameri-tography 2: This Is Where I Am From
I first discovered the work of Sandra Louise Dyas in the fall of 2009 when I was writing and researching a post that was initially about songwriter, singer and guitarist Pieta Brown, Greg’s daughter and Bo Ramsey’s wife. I kept coming across these amazing black and white photographs of not only the extended Brown clan, but all sorts of musicians who mostly live, work and play around Iowa City. While searching through the No Depression archives on Pieta, it led me to a review that Grant Alden wrote of Sandy’s book of portraits called Down To The River: Portraits of Iowa Musicians. I bought the book on Amazon (it comes with an 18-song CD), visited her website, found her email address and our correspondence has led to an online friendship. Last September I posted a series of photos that Sandy shot at the Iowa State Fair, and this series is the latest in her amazing portfolio.
Just as musicians write songs and record albums, photographers work on projects and series. Back in 2009 Sandy was asked to participate in The 50 States Project. A year long event where photographers from each state had to submit themed work every two months, it created a body of work representing images from throughout the country. For Sandy, that began a series of portraits called Lost In The Midwest and, along with another series called Heaven and Earth, it led her to what you see here.
Sandy: “This is Where I Am From is the title I have used for this series on my website gallery. I think it works fine. The photographs are about the cultural landscape here in the Midwest. I am interested in how the geography of a place forms and informs who we become. Iowa has always been my home, and I feel very connected to this landscape. As geography certainly has played a critical role in shaping who I am, I’m curious to how and why we attach ourselves to places.”
Sandy: “I received a McConnell Grant through Cornell College, which gave me the money to do some extensive traveling in eastern and southern Iowa in June. I have a lot of new work from the river cities and rural small towns, and am still in the editing mode for many. I have been tuning into a more simplified straight-on image, rather than using my compositional tricks.”
I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, moved to Los Angeles in 1980 and spent six winters in Minnesota beginning in 1996 before coming back to California. To be honest, my time in the Midwest was not the best…from the freezing cold winters to the sticky humid summer days, with a career trajectory that kept me in the air and traveling most of my weekdays while my wife struggled with two little boys on her own. Only when I look back do I realize that it is a special place in our country, often overlooked and mocked as a place you fly over on your way to somewhere else. The truth is much more complicated. Sandy’s photos allow me to see the beauty, history and simplicity of this land…where in real time, given the opportunity, my own eyes couldn’t see. Which is why I find her work so riveting.
Horsefall’s Lansing Variety Store, Lansing, Iowa
If the above photo looks familiar to you, it’s because it was used for the cover of A Nod To Bob 2, a recently released tribute album of Dylan tunes on Red House Records.
Ol’ Glory, near St. Catherine’s, St. Donatus, Iowa
Basket Ball Hoop, near Iowa City, Iowa
Skid Marks on County Road F8W, near Morse, Iowa
Miracle Car Wash, Dubuque, Iowa
John Deere Tractor, Lost Nation, Iowa
Lost nation, indeed. Lost in so many ways…economically, politically, culturally. Some days it seems we’ve just stumbled and been turned around. But these photos, they ground me. They remind me that our country is not just what we see through the eyes of the television cameras or read in the headlines. We have history, we have roots. I look at these and imagine a cold night in Iowa City, maybe at that pizza joint where they serve up live music along with the beer and the pies. I look at these and see the ghosts. And I hear the music. Which is why I like to share Sandy’s work with this community, at this roots music website. Sandy says “Since photographs and music hold both memories and ideas, they can transport the viewer or the listener to another place. I am not a musician, but I use a camera as I would play an instrument.” And she plays it very, very well.
Just a footnote: When I asked Sandy’s permission to use these photos, she originally sent them to me with a watermark on them. She wrote: “I hope you do not mind the watermark. I have been finding my images here and there without credit. This should help but i guess it does not look so great.” We went back and forth on it, because I really felt that it detracted from the pictures. So she removed it. It seems that being a photographer these days is not unlike that of the life of a musician, in that technology makes it pretty easy to download a song or album for free, or do the same with someone’s photographs or words. Be kind.